HARKING BACK: The walls of Lahore have been lost many times in the past

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn February 7th, 2016

On Friday morning I went to meet an old friend in the walled city; a city that no longer has walls left thanks to the destructive influence of our trader-politician barons, and we got talking about the history of the walls.

His questions started with “when in history have the walls of Lahore been knocked down and why?” It might seem an innocent enough query, but come to think of it that the character of the old city depended a lot on its walls and the effect it had on its enclosed inhabitants. The old city was always a self-sufficient and ‘contained’ unit, with each gate area having its own sub-culture. The walls managed to keep outsiders at bay and, therefore, controlling the city was always manageable.

With the walls knocked down, a slow painful process in which the bricks were stolen to build new godowns and housing inside the city, a new ethos was born in which the trader class became the ruling class. From these traders emerged a new ruthless political class, one that was to move on to grab power, initially, locally, then provincially, and ultimately nationally. Profit and construction is their ‘mantra’ and to impress voters ‘visible construction’ tactics became an engrained methodology. Culture and heritage were a hindrance.

We soon got into history and it was interesting just how the walls were destroyed over time. The first person to attack Lahore was Mahmud of Ghazni, who after a successful war against the ruler of Lahore, Jayapala, in the battle of Peshawar moved to face his son in 1021 when he laid a siege to the city. He starved Lahore and then managed to break through the massive mud walls.

Given the fierce resistance of the Rajput ruler he decided to decimate the city, and Ferishta the historian claims that he gave the order that not a single inhabitant should be left alive, not a single building left standing. The walls took a full seven days to flatten and all young men and women were made slaves and taken to Ghazni for the markets of Central Asia. It is said that Ghazni in his days had more Indian inhabitants than Afghans. He selected a whole set of boys for himself as he was known for his preference of them.

So we see that in 1021 Lahore was flattened and almost the entire population made slaves. He left his slave Malik Ayaz as the governor who once again rebuilt and repopulated the city from the surrounding villages on the promise of not enslaving them. So it was that Lahore was flattened, destroyed and then rebuilt,

The second time was by the Mongol forces of Taimur the Lame, known to us as Taimur Lung. In 1241 with the help of the Ghakkar tribes he captured Lahore with a force of 30,000 soldiers. An angry Taimur ordered that he would come and wanted to see a city as flat as the waters of the Ravi. It took a full seven days to destroy the city till his commander informed him that he could, sitting on his horse, see the other end of the city.

Outside Lahore one of the sub-continent’s largest slave market came up and slowly all of them were moved towards Central Asian countries. Taimur also captured all the gypsies living on the banks of the rivers of Punjab and enslaved them to serve his ever-moving armies. There is a saying that still runs inside the walled city, and that is that “come Taimur and only owls cry in the streets”.

But like Malik Ayaz before him, the Sayyid ruler Sheikh Mubarak rebuilt the city and repopulated it with people from the villages surrounding Lahore. The city regained its position as a major trading centre and a military station to face invaders from the west.

But Lahore was to face an even greater tragedy when the Moghal invader Babar came in 1524 and completely leveled Lahore. His order was that the city should be flattened and the entire population put to the sword. He also sent to Kabul a lot of slaves and it was time for Lahore to rise again, this time under Moghal rule.

For this reason there is not a single monument in Lahore that pre-dates Babar. The only ones are graves like that of Shah Ismail on Hall Road who pre-dates Mahmud, and then there is the grave of Hazrat Zanjani and also that of Ali Hasan of Hajver. The Bibi Pak Daman graveyard could also be older.

So we have a situation in which the walls of Lahore were lost and its population enslaved. Ironically after the uprising in 1857 the British also knocked down a few gateways and walls to make sure a siege of Lahore is not managed. Then again in the fury and fires of communal hatred in 1947 we have portions of the wall being knocked down near Shahalami, as also a few other points.

But 1947 brought in a lot of immigrants, including a lot of traders. Soon they started to destroy the heritage of Lahore, damaging its culture. Slowly they destroyed old buildings and built underground warehouses. To build these they needed bricks and so this new ‘claim generation’ who thrived on every illegality the human mind could think of took hold.

That mentality still rules their lives. The bricks of the walls made their way to these buildings. Within 40 years the walls completely disappeared. In fact to even call it ‘a walled city’ is a misnomer.

The question then arose as to how could the ‘lost’ culture of the old walled city be restored? That is now surely not possible. But what is possible is to rebuild the walls, to move the markets to a new point near the motorway, to perhaps a ‘New Walled City’. Maybe once the walls are restored, for they cannot be conserved as they are lost forever, the heritage and culture of Lahore might make a comeback. It is worth the effort.


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